By DONOVAN HARRELL
Faculty, staff and students gathered in the Frick Fine Arts building auditorium to listen to a panel of Union of Pitt Faculty representatives explain how a union would impact the Pitt community.
The Union Town Hall panel on Oct. 24 was made up of Tyler Bickford, director of graduate studies in the English Department and secretary for the Budget Policies Committee; Jennifer Lee, a senior lecturer of English; Carl Redwood, an adjunct professor with the School of Social Work; Marian Jarlenski, a Public Health assistant professor; and Mrinalini Rajagopalan, a History of Art and Architecture associate professor.
Ruth Mosten, an associate professor of History of Art and Architecture, moderated the panel.
Chancellor Pat Gallagher, Provost Ann Cudd and Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences Arthur Levine were invited to attend but declined. Panelists and attendees weren’t deterred by their absence, and, occasionally, reveled in it, posing questions to the empty chairs where they were supposed to sit.
In an email sent to the Pitt Faculty Organizing Committee, Cudd thanked the members for the invitation, but explained that she and the other administrators declined because they wanted to leave the discussion up to faculty.
“Unionization is a faculty matter and a faculty decision,” Cudd wrote in the email. “And we appreciate this opportunity to reiterate our administration’s neutral stance on this issue. We also appreciate any opportunity for faculty members to thoroughly discuss the unionization process and share accurate information about the pros and cons involved.”
She added that “the University will remain dedicated to supporting their varied interests regardless of how this issue evolves.”
Unionization has been on the minds of many in the University community as two major campaigns, one for faculty and one for graduate student, are underway.
Both campaigns are represented by the United Steelworkers union, with the faculty effort aiming to unionize more than 4,000 full- and part-time faculty. The USW represents more than 10,000 academic workers in the U.S. and Canada.
Echoing similar sentiments from past events, each panelist made their case for a faculty union, citing job insecurity, low pay, a lack of transparency around the tenure process and more.
Lee, who has worked for Pitt’s English Department for 20 years, said she has benefitted from “being in the right place at the right time.”
However, she said, many of the benefits she has enjoyed weren’t all distributed fairly among her colleagues, especially her Non-Tenure Stream colleagues
“I wanted to believe in my own exceptionalism,” Lee said. “But eventually the sheen wore off and it became impossible not to see the field in disparities. That an assistant professor in my department is hired in at roughly $30,000 more a year than I make after 20 years of teaching at Pitt, while I do twice as much as an adjunct with the same course load as mine.”
She said she’s seen promotion meetings where some teachers are given “great leeway” in their student evaluations, while others aren’t. She’s also seen colleagues who went up for promotion but were denied because “the dean tells us the criteria have changed.”
“I'm working to help form a faculty union here at Pitt because I want to have the terms of my employment articulated clearly and applied fairly, to know that the process of renewal and promotion has integrity,” Lee said.
Following opening statements from the other panelists, audience members asked panelists questions directly, while others opted to ask questions through anonymous cards.
The audience asked if the union would increase student tuition, how a union would affect diversity and gender equity, how much the law firm the University has retained for the unionization efforts, Ballard Spahr, costs and more.
Rajagopalan said that she doesn’t believe the union would drive the cost of student tuition up, and that a union would help answer some of the more complicated financial questions, which she and other representatives have asked before.
“The assumption is that there's no money,” Rajagopalan said. “Pitt sits on top of a very healthy endowment. They are legally bound to spend the revenue generated from that endowment, we don't know where that money is going.
“If we have a union, or when we get a union, one of the things that the University has to do, is when they say, ‘we don't have the money,’ we can say, ‘well please open up your books and show us where we don't have money, how you don't have the money.’ ”
The Union of Pitt Faculty is still in the process of collecting anonymous cards. If it manages to collect cards from 30 percent of the bargaining unit, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board would hold a secret ballot election. If a majority votes to negotiate with Pitt, then Pitt would be obligated by law to negotiate.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.